Friday, December 14, 2012

A View From Inside the 'Safety Net'

In my last blog, Why Social Services and the Safety Net Simply Can't Work Right Now, I posted my thoughts about why the Safety Net can't work at this present time in America. I pointed out two major reasons: One, is that I feel Americans have a skewed view of people who are now living at or near poverty levels of income.  These attitudes -- generally speaking, that there is something 'wrong' with poor people -- goes back far in our history and runs deep. It's a mix of a Protestant work ethic, and a ruggedly romantic individualistic "John Wayne' notion of what it means to be an American, and particularly an American man.  And, last but not least, racism. I've been voting for more than 30 years, and every Presidential campaign I have witnessed  -- including the most recent one -- provided some references, subtle and not so subtle, to the social services safety net being some kind of  poor man's country club for Blacks and Hispanics.

Trust me, I have lived in the safety net and it is anything but a country club. (More on that later.) And although most of us know by now -- statistically speaking -- that Whites make up the largest proportion and percentage of Americans using social services; well, if you've ever talked with a bigot then you know already how much they value facts and stats. Racism's heydays seem to be waning, but to pretend that it's not still there, doesn't remain deeply ingrained in the American psyche,  is delusional and counter-productive to solving the poverty problem in America. As long as those needing help are a 'them' and not an 'us', the problem will persist. 

When one is in the safety net it is akin to being in a leper colony:  First, you are isolated or 'ghettoized' among yourselves; and then treated as though you inhabit some horrific and contagious disease. What country club does that?

As it works now, Social Services is good at maintaining people at a survival level of existence, but does not, or does very little, in the way of helping them become self-sufficient and productive members of society.   In that sense, it's not a complete waste of taxpayers money, but close to it. 

The specific reason for this is a lack of willingness to invest in people who are in the safety net. Maintaining a person in the safety net is expensive -- subsidized rent and food. Having a place to live and something to eat is of course vitally important -- for survival, but not for living.  Most of us are not living in a jungle where we can turn to Mother Nature for sustenance. We have to make money in order to get the things we need to live, and in order to do that we need to have the financial wherewithal to be able to look for work. It takes money to find or create work -- for transportation, clothes, toiletries, health care and, in this day and age, access to the internet.

Try doing all that on $140.00 a month -- the average general assistance allowance. It's nearly impossible.

The reason most new businesses fail is because they started up without enough capital; the same is true for individuals. It is much more common for people on Emergency Assistance to stay in the safety net for a short period of time, and then go back to the living situation that caused their emergency. The money invested in them during that period of time was almost completely wasted; it returned next to nothing on the investment.

The hurdle to jump over in order to deal with this problem is, unfortunately, once again an invisible one, coming from our core beliefs about ourselves as a society: Mistrust of poor people to make good decisions, invest properly, in themselves.

I'll get into the reasons for the mistrust shortly, but let's look at this first from a monetary or business perspective. If you, as an investor -- in this case state and federal government -- are getting a zero, or near zero, return on your investment than shouldn't you think about changing it? You can't invest any less or those you are investing in will lose their places to live and ability to eat rendering them a complete zero  - and more than likely they'll revert to criminal activity in order to get what they need to survive.  Now you are in the minus column on your investment. But if you invested a little more -- and you do have the capital to do so -- you might  get a much better return on your investment.

Sound reasonable? So why not do it? That brings us back to the issue of mistrust. The bias against 'giving people something for nothing'(getting nothing in return for your generosity)  is an understandable one. No one likes to do that. But it is exactly what Social Services is doing by not investing enough -- it's getting nothing in return.  So why else would these services hold back on investing? Because -- and this is a Major One -- there's a rock-solid belief that most people in the safety net would use the cash-money for nefarious purposes, i.e. drugs.

Of course a certain amount of people in the safety net use drugs. We're a drug addled society -- why would the poor be immune?  But that's another kettle of fish, how to deal with that societal problem.

The point I am making here, and this will be my final one, is that we need to start looking at people in the safety net as underused or under-functioning resources and find better ways of investing in those resources -- for their good and our own good. I'll leave you with a quote from Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.: "When we empower someone to succeed, we all succeed."

Right on! Right on...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Why Social Services or the Safety Net Simply Can't Work Right Now.'

The title of the blog might make it seem as though I am pessimistic about the role that social services or the safety net can play in American society.

I'm not.

I'm simply pointing out that it is going to take time. Why? Because there first needs to take place a paradigm shift in the social cultural and political attitude of Americans towards people who are living at or near the poverty threshold.

America did once have a more fluid and egalitarian economy -- following the end of World War II up until roughly the 'Reagan Era' in the 1980s. Reagan's eight year conservative reign oversaw a political shift away from an egalitarian model of economics (we are all in this together) to  a more Darwinian  'winner take all' one.

As a result of that, which subsequently also led directly to the outsourcing of American jobs to cheap or slave labor markets, and the crushing of labor unions, there are more Americans living in poverty now than any time since the Great Depression.

At that time, however, it brought about a political leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, given his personal patrician background, became an unlikely but very effective executive advocate for those living in poverty.

In fact, the social programs or safety net we currently have in place could largely be attributed to his administration. His most effective and enduring programs were those that provided people with public works employment and free or affordable higher education.  At that time, it was also recognized that labor unions played a positive role in not allowing the working class to become second- or third-class economic citizens.

Historians looking closely at the social reforms of these times also point out that these economic changes were not made out of benevolence but from a real fear of social rebellion and revolt. That's what masses of abused, hungry people do -- they revolt.

The social services we have now are enough to stave off revolt, but not enough to foster a shift in Americans' attitudes toward people living in poverty. That's going to take time.

Why am I not pessimistic about this change taking place? Because in my lifetime I've witnessed and experienced major shifts -- out of necessity, one might argue -- in America's attitudes toward people of color, women and gays.   Those changes didn't happen overnight. 

To end poverty the same type of attitude change has to take place toward people living at or near poverty in our society. It seems to me that our society has three directions it can go in in this matter: increase wages in the country in order to provide a viable living wage (doesn't seem likely) or accept the fact that we do have a two-tier economic system and that social services are going to have to become a larger and more accepted  part of American life.  The latter path will necessitate not only a major paradigm shift in American attitudes toward people living at poverty levels,  but in our core belief (or delusion) that we are a society that provides equal opportunity and fosters economic self-reliance.  And, of course, the third course is that if you are unable to provide a level playing field, and refuse to acknowledge the necessity of adequate social services, than we will end up fostering social unrest and revolt and suppressing it in the name of law and order. (Way  more costly financially and socially than providing a living wage or adequate social services.)

Most people living at or near poverty in America are not there because of some character defect or unwillingness to work hard. They are there because there has been a systemic change in the American economy in the last four decades.

If the economy is unable or unwilling to provide a living wage to its working citizens then it will inevitably have to face increased numbers of its population receiving some form of financial assistance from the government, or otherwise abuse or neglect  them and face revolt. It's really as simple as that.

If we are going to become a society that embraces economic fairness by taking taking care of its citizens more through social services then directly through the economy, then we are going to have to face a major change in our attitude toward those living at the lowest notch of the economic totem. And that's going to take time.  

For starters, however, please read the following petition and consider signing it an passing it on to others. 
             Help Improve Social Services to Reduce Homelessness